Summary: Dramatic changes took place in the church at Corinth when the Corinthian Christians they allowed the Holy Spirit to do His work.
As you will recall from earlier studies in our series about the books of First and Second Corinthians, Paul has had extensive dealings with the church at Corinth. He established the church around 52 A.D. when he first went to Corinth, and he lived in Corinth for a year and a half to help the church in its initial months of existence. Subsequently, however, the church strayed from sound doctrine after Paul had left Corinth, and many problems developed within the church and in its witness to the community. Paul wrote several times to the Corinthians seeking to motivate them to make substantive changes. One of those letters we know as the book of 1 Corinthians, in which we read of difficulties in the church involving factions, disorganization, legalism, and failure to deal effectively with sinning members. The church sought to be acceptable in its philosophical, hedonistic culture. Leaders of the disruptive factions thought themselves and portrayed themselves as spiritually superior, but Paul showed them they were arrogant and spiritually immature.
After sending that letter, Paul made a short visit to Corinth which he calls his painful visit (see 2 Corinthians 2:1). Apparently he left the city after confronting the church and giving them an ultimatum to return to sound doctrine and practice. He is thought to have given them a letter of rebuke at this time also, and they were to send Paul their response with Titus, who planned to meet Paul in Troas. When Titus did not show up at Troas, Paul traveled to Macedonia and found him there. Titus brought good news from Corinth—the church had mended its ways and had heeded Paul’s instructions. While we do not know the details, the disruptive leaders either repented or left the church, and the church implemented Paul’s instructions as to doctrine, conduct of worship, and interaction with the culture around it. After learning of these positive developments that had taken place in Corinth, Paul immediately wrote another letter to the church commending them and praising them for the changes they had made. We know this letter as the book of 2 Corinthians. Just prior to the passage we will discuss today, Paul commended the Corinthians for yielding to his instructions and returning to sound doctrine (in chapters 1 and 2). In chapter 3, he briefly discusses legalism versus the indwelling and leading of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian, and in doing so recognizes the Corinthians for the spiritual maturity of the path they have now chosen.
Paul’s comments to his readers in this passage teach that (1) the Spirit changes the way we live, (2) the Christian’s competence comes from the Spirit and not external control of the law, and (3) we experience the glory of God through the indwelling Spirit.
1. The Spirit changes the way we live (vv. 1-3)
Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
Notice that Paul did not say I told you so or gloat or see himself as victor in rebuking the Corinthian church. I don’t know about you, but that always seems to be a temptation when I have had a difference of opinion with someone and prove to have been right. While I don’t often give into that temptation, it’s still there nonetheless! As with many aspects of Paul’s life, he lived his Christian beliefs, and he responded to the Corinthians’ change of heart not with gloating, but with forgiveness and thanksgiving.
Paul was careful in his response for a number of reasons. Remember from our previous studies that he had been criticized by some people in the church for his bold teaching. Some of them had accused him of being proud and even accused him of lying to them when he changed his travel plans and did not arrive at Corinth for a visit when he had said he would. He did not want to commend himself or take any credit away from the Corinthians for the decision they had made. He wanted them to know that the victory was theirs for returning to sound doctrine and practice in their faith.
Paul also recognized that they had reaffirmed his authenticity and authority as an apostle. This may even have been stated in the response Titus delivered to Paul from the Corinthians. He asks a rhetorical question (Do I need a letter of recommendation) which in a way recognizes them or thanks them for the fact they no longer are influenced by those who had accused him of being a false teacher. In the first century, there were many itinerant philosophers and evangelists, many of whom were false teachers of Christian principles and doctrines. One way to know an itinerant teacher was bona fide was for an established church to give him a letter of introduction and recommendation to carry with him to the next place he visited. Paul’s question to his Corinthians readers may even have intended to be a somewhat humorous way to acknowledge his gratitude that no one in Corinth continued to question his apostleship. He also turns the issue into a compliment of the Corinthian Christians, employing the issue to convey to them he does not need a letter of recommendation because the Spirit of God now working through them is proof of the truth he had taught them.